16 chefs reveal the one spice everyone should have in their kitchen
- We surveyed professional chefs to find out their single favourite spice.
- Some said their favourites were basic staples like black peppercorn, ginger, and nutmeg.
- Others named spices with more regional specificity, like sumac, Calabrian chili, or Perilla seeds.
Anyone who's ever cooked can tell you that the right spices can make the difference between a bland dish and a stellar one. As Thomas Romero, chef at ACME in New York told INSIDER, "There's an almost overwhelming variety of spices that are available to us in modern times and utilizing them effectively is a skill unto itself.
"To me, it's galvanizing to take multiple seemingly disparate flavors and fuse them into a dish or sauce that highlights them all in a harmonious chorus."
Spices, as Romero said, are most often and best used in combination. But if you had to pick just one to add to your pantry, what would it be?
We spoke to several chefs who specialize in a variety of different cuisines and asked them to pick their favorite spice.
Joseph Conti, executive chef of Shuraku, votes for fresh ground wasabi root
"Just the right touch of heat to enhance the flavor of chicken, beef, or fish with without being overpowering," said Conti.
Tim Hui Teo of The Tang opts for sesame seeds
"Although a type of seed, the Chinese use it widely as a spice among different cuisines. White sesame is used to sprinkle on top of dishes, as well as dessert, to create a nutty aroma, and black sesame is often ground to powder to make a paste," said Teo.
Darren Pettigrew, executive chef of Valerie , loves sumac, common in Middle Eastern cooking
"At the moment I'm loving my sumac spice, which is savory, earthy, and tart at the same time. At Valerie, I've been using a lot of spices from the Mediterranean, specifically from North Africa and the Levantine region," Pettigrew told INSIDER.
Tom McKenna, executive chef of Public Kitchen springs for Calabrian chili
McKenna told INSIDER, "It's very versatile. It can be a subtle flavor to elevate your dish or it can be a star component. It's also a brilliant red color that can make your dishes beautiful as well as delicious. I like when it comes crushed in oil."
Ginger is the go-to for Philippe Chow, executive chef of Philippe Chow
"It is a very healthy spice that is zesty and biting yet sweet. It is a great addition to both sweet and savory dishes," said Chow.
Thomas Romero of ACME struggled to choose, but if he had to, said he would pick black cardamom
"It is a relative of the more common green cardamom, but it is smoke-dried over an open fire. It has a strong camphor-like flavor and a subtle smokiness that can drastically transform whatever it touches, so it needs to be used judiciously, and when it is the effects are magical. It brings me back to childhood camping trips in the mountains of California, under a blanket of stars next to the warmth of a fire," said Romero.
Rachael Polhill, chef at Dante , opts for coriander seeds in any form
"Raw, the seeds have a green herbaceous fragrance which is great for infusing. When toasted it makes a great ingredient in a dry rub for game meats or in homemade curry powder," said Polhill.
Cloves are the go-to for Chao Wang of Hunan Slurp and Yuchun Cheung of Little Alley
"It's a very aromatic spice that effuses the smell of cinnamon and flowers," said Wang. "It's a perfect spice for making master stocks and stew pear dishes."
Cheung added cloves are "a type of fragrant spice widely used a lot of Shanghainese dishes, including the classic red-cooked pork."
Kevin Adey, of Michelin-starred restaurantFaro, said his favourite is 'anything anise'
"Anise seed, star anise, even fennel seed. I just love how it has great depth control. Longer cooking gives deeper flavors. Less time and finer manipulation give brighter flavors," said Adey, adding "You could infuse it into vinegar, or make a sachet of the spice to simmer in sauce and remove it like a tea bag."
Kaiyuan Li of Atlas Kitchen and Peter Yi of Brooklyn Cider House would choose Perilla seed
"Perilla, as a distinctive spice in Hunan cuisine, has a long history in the culinary world," Li said.
"Perilla and mint leaves taste a bit similar in that the taste is refreshing and can remove the smell of the river from the fish, but it does not cover the fresh taste of the river. Perilla can be said to be the soul of Hunan cuisine and the essential food for river fish-cooking," Li added.
Yi lauded their "rich flavor when ground and used in hearty soups especially in cold winter months. Perilla seeds are not just tasty, but also good for you with an abundance of omega-3 and omega-6."
Nutmeg is the favourite spice of Aishling Stevens, of Restaurant Latour
"I am in love with the shape, scent, and feel of it. In fact, on most given days in my kitchen nutmeg can be found in my pocket as I often use it on a whim. It brings a subtle earthiness and balance and can be used in both sweet and savory. I love to use it anytime I use citrus and also love it with shellfish. It also is good for digestion and other stomach issues. When I was a child my mother often grated it into soups or beverages when I felt poorly," said Stevens.
Zilong Zhao of MáLà Project and Mitch Brumels of Ocean Prime Boston chose peppercorns - the Sichuan and black varieties, respectively
"I love to make steak au poive," said Brumels. "The heat from the pepper accompanies the steak in many ways."
Zhao said peppercorns are the main spice in Málà's specialty dry pot. "It's the soul of Sichuan's signature numbing-ness."
Baiguang Han credits goji berries with making Tang Hotpot's hot pork bone broth 'extra restorative and flavorful'
Han told INSIDER goji betties are good antioxidants for eyes and skin. "Chinese people also immerse goji berries in their teas and drink daily," added Han.
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